Today in the Washington Post, David Bernstein accuses me of anti-Semitism for a post I did last week titled “Forgiving the Anti-Semites” in which I related several incidents over Passover that touched on issues of Jewish power and victimization. The heart of that post was a friend saying that Israel would not cease to abuse Palestinians until Jews forgave the anti-Semites the atrocities committed against Jews in Europe in the last century. Bernstein says that the piece was passed on to him by a Jewish friend who wrote, “Who thinks like this?” then he calls Mondoweiss a hate site and says that my hatred of Israel blurs into hatred of Jews.
I urge folks to read my original piece, here. I like it, I’m proud of it. And here’s why.
The thrust of the piece is that Jews have to live here now, in an America where we have considerable power. This is the issue Bernstein completely avoids: the remarkable rise of Jews inside the U.S. establishment in the last generation. How do we deal with this? How do we reconcile ourselves to this status? Do we even acknowledge it? Or do we turn a blind eye to it because it is embarrassing or goes against our image of ourselves. Bernstein cannot acknowledge it, but he surely knows that this is a signal fact of the Jewish experience, the American rise. He offers a long meditation on the Jewish experience of persecution in Europe. No doubt– but that was the point of my piece. Dwelling in that victimization narrative is a way of avoiding dealing with who we are today; and we are by and large privileged. If there is one story that captures the Jewish experience of the last 40 years it is this: that Alan Dershowitz threatened to leave Harvard Law School in 1970 or so unless they appointed a Jewish dean. There had been none. Well they did name one, and there have been a couple since, one of whom now sits on the Supreme Court, along with two other Jews appointed by Democratic presidents. In fact the doors opened all over our society in the 70s and the 80s and the 90s; and Dershowitz became a bestselling proponent of Israel. And the Israel lobby cannot be understood outside of that sociological frame. Bill Clinton was embraced by AIPAC over George H.W. Bush in 1992 because he had Jewish friends at his wedding and p.s. he supported the settlement project. Then in the 90s Bill Kristol purged the Jim Baker “Arabists” from the Republican Party; and Bush’s son ran for president as a supporter of settlements, and got Sheldon Adelson’s money. If you don’t think that this reflects the Jewish rise into the establishment, and the importance of (Zionist) Jewish money to the political process, then you should read the Forward this week, which recognizes that the American political class has a right to discuss the rightwing Zionist influence over the Republican party, stemming from wealth.
I am proud of my Passover piece because I believe this is a great spiritual challenge to Jews: to deal with our actual status in western societies. What would the American Jewish community look like today if we moved beyond viewing ourselves as the eternal victim?
Part of that process means reckoning with our history and the degree to which we were essential to industrialization and the rise of the modern nation state. This is a theme of Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, it was at the heart of Benjamin Ginsburg’s Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State, and of Jerry Muller’s Capitalism and the Jews. And yes, part of this acknowledgment means wrestling with our role in European societies at the turn of the century, the remarkable transformation that we helped to effect as modern professionals. Bernstein leaves out my quotation of Herzl on this theme; but before the Holocaust, Jews often talked about our economic power (and privately many Jews do so now, too). One of those professionals, Franz Kafka, often wrote in his diaries and letters about our singular presence in Prague and Berlin, and in a landmark statement of self-hatred, wrote to his non-Jewish girlfriend: “At times I’d like to stuff them all, simply as Jews (me included) into, say, the drawer of the laundry chest. Next I’d wait, open the drawer a little to see if they’ve suffocated, and if not, shut the drawer again and keep doing this to the end.” That girlfriend later died in the Holocaust trying to save Jews. So did two of Kafka’s sisters; and I quote that letter not to approve it, but to point out that questions of Jewish status in the west have been deeply perplexing to Jewish writers before me; and these issues also interest me deeply; and to try and blackguard inquiry, as Bernstein does, is a form of censorship aimed at preserving the current order, notably a disastrous Middle East policy.
The adamant refusal by powerful organs such as the Washington Post to examine the Israel lobby and its roots has hurt U.S. foreign policy and undoubtedly hurt a lot of people along the way. And we need smart people to talk about this. The Best and the Brightest helped to (nonviolently) reform the last social order, the one that produced Vietnam; and the social order that produced Iraq also deserves reform. I don’t think that accounting can be done without Jewish reflection. Bernstein mocks me for saying that Brian Roberts runs the largest media company in the world and Chris Matthews works for him and praises Israel. He says that this is evidence of Protocols of the Elders of Zion-like thinking. But that’s just namecalling, aimed at stopping people from looking at actual facts in the media age. It’s like Dana Milbank saying that Walt and Mearsheimer had Teutonic names or David Remnick cracking that if we only got rid of the Israel lobby, Osama bin Laden would have gone back into the construction business. It’s not an answer. And the answer for me is not actually an assault on elites, but their reform, including an aggressive critique of Zionism inside Jewish life. Because Zionism is a discriminatory dangerous ideology, and premised on ideas of Jewish victimization that do not reflect our experience in any way.
I give Bernstein one point. I probably shouldn’t have used the $7000 a week hotel anecdote straight out of Goodbye Columbus toward the end of the piece. It was shtik-like and cartoonish, and that piece was serious business.